Week 14: Technology and Culture.

Reading Questions, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 702, Fall 2004, taught by Dr. Martha Crosby

1. Flew (p.30) defines the concept of "cultural technologies" as a way to understand technologies not simply as material forms that impact upon culture, but rather as cultural forms themselves. Use the three-level definition of technology to analyze the culture of digital TV.

Flew defines technology in three levels:

He also defines culture on a similar three-level basis: the arts and aesthetic excellence, ways of life, and an underlying structural system.

Digital TV--specifically, systems like TiVo that allow programs to be recorded and watched later--has a different culture than traditional TV. First of all, the physical hardware is different. Digital TV includes a hard drive and processing capabilities to handle storing shows for later viewing.

But digital TV also has extended software that allows a user to not only watch a certain show right now, but record certain shows to see later. This changes the details of selecting a show to watch. The most drastic difference is how the TV can now be used. Men can pause the football game to take out the trash. A couple can go to the wife's company Christmas party without missing their favorite medical drama.

Changes in use affect how the content is received, which changes systems of knowledge and social meaning. Audiences become less passive. Instead of a "viewer", they become a "user". They can fast-forward through the commercials, shifting the balance of power between audience and advertisers. This pushes companies in the direction of direct product placement within the show itself, blurring the distinction between the content itself and the advertisements that support that content.

2. Marshall McLuhan stresses to some extent cultural content was embedded within specific technological forms. (p.42) He claims that the media influence not only what we think but how we think. Do you agree or disagree with his ideas? Why?

I do agree that different media prompt different ways of thinking. This was nicely illustrated in the reading by Kress in Week 10 that distinguishes between visual and linear modes of communication. That is, the elements of visual media, such as photographs and diagrams, can be processed in various orders or taken in as a general gestalt and then analyzed for small details. In contrast, linear media, such as text or audio, must be processed sequentially. This is a particularly apt mode for messages involving narrative or other progressions, such as from general to specific knowledge. There are also combinations, such as TV, which provides spatially organized data that changes over time.

I find this difference between spatial and linear media more illuminating and obvious than McLuhan's difference between "hot" and "cold" media. However, I still agree with McLuhan's basic premise that the different media change how we process the message, and thereby change our habits of thought.

As a further example, different ways of thinking about data can be seen in the personal organization of computer files. In most cases, we classify files by their type, rather than by their content. We put all our mp3s together in one place, our emails in another, our documents in a third, and our Web bookmarks in a fourth. We use different applications for each one--a media player, an email client, a text editor, or a browser. Yet it would be possible for us to organize our data by content or theme--all our documents, emails, and bookmarks for one project in the same place. But this is rather alien to current practice because we use different applications--and so different physical and mental practices--to process each file type. We can see even in the simple example the medium of the content can affect our decisions (in this case, how to organize files in a file system) as much or more as the content.

3. Starner discusses advantages and challenges of wearable computing. How can wearable computing be used in your field of interest? What would be the primary advantages? What would be the primary challenges?

Within my primary field of interest--my personal life--wearable computing would be both a blessing and a curse.

The main advantage would be extensive personalization. Right now I have a laptop that is my primary machine. I am loath to use other machines because information gets out-of-sync and because the settings on other computers are all "wrong." This attachment to my computer has lead me to think of it as a "familiar" that grants me access to the digital half of my life. As such, I have named it Fizzgig (after a small furry creature in Jim Henson's movie The Dark Crystal). While this may be a little eccentric, I spend more time with my laptop than I do with any other single living being. It is where I work, communicate with others (email is my primary communication channel), and entertain myself with movies and games (I don't have a TV). And during this long association, I have established a lot of settings and customizations. This would be the primary advantage of wearable computing--being able to take this customized access to the digital world with me wherever I go. Even as a repository of settings and data for access to other ubiquitous computing services, a wearable computer would be handy.

The primary challenge of wearable computing will be maintaining peace of mind. We will need to process much more information each moment--now from both our environment and our computers. This could be overwhelming, especially for those of us who have difficulty multitasking. (For example, I can't focus on anything else when the TV is on.)

But even more worrisome than this for me is the increase in social expectations. As it becomes harder and harder to unplug--because you can take your computer with your wherever you go, and indeed will need to as it grants you greater access to the electronic elements of your life--you will always be available. People's expectation of polite response time will become more extreme. Two hundred years ago, it may have taken a month to receive a reply to a letter. Today, people expect replies in email within 24 hours, usually within 12 hours. If we are always connected, this will likely shrink to expectations of instantaneous access to within a couple hours (if you're in a meeting or sleeping right now). I dread this increase in living speed the most--I'm already too busy as it is. As the speed of life increase, we all seem to get busier and more stressed, yet not happier and more content.

Boddy, William. "New Media as Old Media: Television." The New Media Book British Film Institute, 2002. pp.242-253

Flew, Terry. "New Media as Cultural Technologies." New Media: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002. pp.31-51

Starner, T. "The challenges of wearable computing: Part 1." Micro, IEEE. 21:4. (July-Aug 2001.) pp.44-52 (attached)

Starner, T. "The challenges of wearable computing: Part 2." Micro, IEEE. 21:4. (July-Aug 2001.) pp.54-67